We sailed Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas August 8-15, 2010, Eastern Caribbean itinerary from Miami with ports of call in St. Maarten, San Juan (Puerto Rico), and Labadee (Haiti). This was our 10th cruise: 4th on Royal Caribbean and we have also sailed 4 times on Norwegian and once each on Celebrity and Carnival. Unlike most of our cruises where we are traveling with friends, extended family, or both, this time it was just my husband and me (53 and 59 respectively) and our 3 youngest kids aged 21 and a pair of 18 year olds. It was a last gasp summer getaway before back-to-school.
We live in South Carolina and will usually opt to drive to embarkation ports in Florida rather than flying. FYI, although it's been a few years since we flew into Miami, the last time we did we were not happy with the airport experience. It was a disorganized circus and half the employees we encountered there could not speak English. Flying to Fort Lauderdale seems less stressful and you can easily arrange a shuttle to the Port of Miami. But for as hurly burly as the airport can be, the Cruise Port of Miami is excellent. Cool (good air-conditioning welcome in steamy heat!) clean and well organized. We were amazed at how efficiently the thousands of passengers arriving at the terminal were cheerfully processed and whisked onto the ship. Bravo! Parking cost us $20/ day for our minivan, but that's still a bargain compared to 5 airline tickets.
THE SHIP: LIBERTY OF THE SEAS / FREEDOM CLASS OVERVIEW:
We LOVED this ship!!! This was the best Royal Caribbean ship we have sailed, hands down. Surprisingly, the Freedom class isn't that different from the Voyager class to look at the deck plans on paper, but we enjoyed Liberty considerably more than Explorer of the Seas, which we sailed in 2005. It never seemed crowded (except maybe during the parades in the Royal Promenade), and the basic traffic flow seemed to work better, although I can't always pinpoint why. The Windjammer Cafe moved hordes of people through during peak breakfast and lunch "rush hours" but we never had trouble finding a table and never had to stand in long lines. We noticed that beverage service was handled much more efficiently than we remember from our last Royal Caribbean cruise. There were plenty of small "outrigger" beverage stations where you could pour yourself a cup of coffee just a few steps away from your table or grab a pre-poured cold beverage, and the wait staff circulated asking if they could bring drinks to your table for you. This cut down on the congestion of people milling about in search of a cup of coffee or a lemonade refill at a handful of centrally located beverage depots.
Likewise we never had trouble nabbing a chaise out on the pool deck, and unlike some ships we have sailed, almost all the chaises had a great view (for example we sailed one ship where the earlybirds got the handful of chaises overlooking the pool and everyone else was stuck looking at the smoke stack or lavatory door or something equally lackluster). There are multiple pools and a kids' waterpark on Liberty of the Seas, each with its own personality and plenty of seating for sunbathing. We found it slightly ironic that this ship had more passengers than any other ship we have ever cruised, and yet finding a free chaise on the pool deck was less of an issue than on ships with a half or even a third of the people onboard. In part this was due to the fact that there were always plenty of options of things to do, which led to fewer bottlenecks at the pool ... or anyplace else.
We have always found the staterooms to be comfortable on Royal Caribbean. Admittedly the beds are not as comfortable as Carnival, but the cabins are larger than the standard issue on Norwegian with a small sitting area in each cabin (but for what it's worth, we like the bathroom design better on Norwegian). If you have never cruised before, do not expect your stateroom to be as spacious as a hotel room because unless you have a high glam suite, your bedroom is likely to feel more like a glorified walk-in closet than a palatial boudoir. That said, the staterooms are well designed with efficient use of what space there is, so long as you do not attempt to live out of your suitcase. Unpack as soon as your bags are delivered; put things away in the closet and drawers, and then stash your suitcase under the bed. To keep your stateroom comfortable, repack the clothes that you do not plan to wear again as you go instead of allowing them to pile up around your cabin. This will also make your packing at the end of the cruise a breeze because most of it will already be done. TIP: I bring Downy wrinkle releaser spray to keep our clothes wrinkle-free when we travel. If you spray your clothes for tomorrow before you go to bed at night, they will look fresh and wrinkle free the next morning.
One thing I really like about Royal Caribbean (really really really like) is their policy for booking families. Most cruise lines have their computer systems rigged so that it is difficult or even impossible to book a stateroom without having somebody over 21 in each cabin. This places a particular hardship on large families with 2 parents but several children, more than 2 cabins worth of warm bodies. On Royal Caribbean, if Mom and Dad say that the kids are old enough to have their own bedroom, then Royal Caribbean says okay too. Children need to either be next door or across the hall from Mom and Dad, but that is usually easy enough to arrange. So when we sail Royal Caribbean, our two 18 year old daughters can be booked into their own stateroom and it's no hassle. On many other cruise lines we have to split them up on paper with my husband listed in one cabin and me in the other, then we swap rooms onboard so the girls are together and so are my husband and me. That's a nuisance at best, and impossible at worst if there are more than a couple minor kids in the mix, and assuming you want to book enough cabins for everyone to be comfortable. It's one thing to travel with toddlers in your stateroom, but is there really anyone whose idea of a fun vacation is splitting up Mom and Dad so each can stay in a bunk bed dorm with a bunch of teenagers? I'd rather stay home!
Here I find a bit of a conundrum. Our two favorite cruise lines so far are Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. But we like them for different things, and one area where they are quite different is their respective dining arrangements. I thought the food was absolutely delicious on Liberty of the Seas - the prime rib was outstanding and so was the rack of lamb - there wasn't a disappointing meal all week. The service was also gracious and attentive, and we were made to feel like we were special every time we entered the dining room. In this regard, Royal Caribbean trumps Norwegian. I have had very good food on Norwegian too, but I think overall Royal Caribbean gets the nod. There's no contest that we get terrific service on Royal Caribbean.
What I really like on Norwegian, however, is the flexibility of freestyle dining that other large cruise lines simply cannot match because their ships are not designed to make it work. Liberty of the Seas has a huge, multi-story ballroom-sized elegant dining room as opposed to a dozen smaller restaurants, so that most people will be eating in the same dining room most (if not all) nights onboard. The new Genesis-class ships (Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas) may be different, but other Royal Caribbean ships, including Liberty of the Seas, work best with set seating meals. We signed up for My Time dining with the idea that we could go at different times on different nights like we do on Norwegian, but quickly discovered that wasn't going to be so easy. We either would have to make reservations every night (ugh!), or else stand around waiting for them to figure out where they could squeeze in a family of five. On Norwegian, because there are plenty of different places to eat, when you are hungry you just check the electronic boards to see which restaurant can seat your party. But My Time dining on Royal Caribbean doesn't work that way. In the end, we locked in a time with the same table and same servers every night (albeit a time of our choosing) and it worked fine, except that we forfeited the flexibility to mix it up and change plans daily depending on what else might be going on.
As an aside, the Windjammer Cafe and Jade Asian (grouped together in one large dining area) were both excellent buffets. We did not eat at either Portofino or Chops Grille, the upscale specialty restaurants that have a cover charge, so I cannot comment on either. We did occasionally have lunch at Sorrento's on the Promenade (like the main dining room and the buffet venues, Sorrento's is free) and were pleasantly surprised that the pizza was very good and they offered some interesting salad side dishes.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ONBOARD ACTIVITIES:
First of all: the shows. The ice skating production show remains one of the best highlights on any Voyager class and Freedom class Royal Caribbean ship - no contest! Do NOT miss the ice skating show - rearrange your schedule to be sure you go. The show on Liberty of the Seas was superb - absolutely first class! Not only is the skating outstanding, but the costuming is breathtakingly beautiful.
Another must see (especially if it is your first time) is one or more of the parades in the Royal Promenade. They are amazing (am I really on a boat???) and fun with colorful costumes and lots of energy.
Lavish costuming is one of the strong suits of Royal Caribbean across the board, and is also a hallmark of the song and dance production shows in the main theater, plus the sets are also extravagantly beautiful. Clearly no expense is spared, and whoever dreams up the eye candy has a vivid and imaginative vision.
Making some comparisons between cruise lines ... we have seen the best sets (clearly the most clever sets) on Royal Caribbean, and the award for fabulous costuming is shared between Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. But in terms of raw talent and variety, I'd go with Norwegian. I suspect taking their cue from Norwegian which has the cutting edge here, I have noticed that both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are now adding a level of aerial performance to their shows, but they are nowhere near the expertise level of the cirque performances by the Jean Ann Ryan Company on Norwegian.
I was also surprised that on our cruise, the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers put on most of the shows night after night. The ice show was one alternative, and on another night Matthew and Gunnar Nelson (Ricky Nelson's twin sons) put on a wonderful tribute to their late Dad, but otherwise we saw different production shows every night instead of a cross-section of entertainment such as comedians, jugglers, pianists, magicians, hypnotists or whatever acts might be typical on other cruises. A couple comedians put on late night gigs and there was an interesting East European solo performer who, among other things, did amazing stuff with hula hoops, but these performers didn't get a whole evening spot to do their thing as the main show.
Liberty of the Seas was the best Royal Caribbean cruise we have taken in terms of always having a variety of options to pursue beyond the main show. There were plenty of performers: a couple different guitarists, a pianist, a Latin combo and more playing in different bars, pubs, or lounges to offer choices for late night diversion. Our kids closed down the Catacomb disco every night and raved about the DJs onboard. My husband and I thought that Jeff Ellis and the Liberty of the Seas Orchestra were first rate and were very pleased that they did a couple shows in cabaret venues - one night for big band tunes and another for jazz (both excellent!). There were also some game shows onboard which were fun, and plenty of trivia competitions (our team took the silver medal in progressive trivia on this cruise - hooray!). There were also poolside games and contests and of course bingo. I noticed that the art auctions have disappeared (no loss there - I am an art history professor and have always been amused at most of what was passed off as "art" at these auctions anyway).
One last note here is that Liberty of the Seas offered special meet and mingle opportunities for the 18-20 crowd. I have never seen that before, and our 21 year old commented that he wished this had been available when he was in that age bracket, having aged out of the teen program but still being underage for the over 21 crowd.
The nightly Cruise Compass delivered to your stateroom keeps everyone up to speed on what is happening when and where the following day, so it's easy to get as much or as little out of the onboard entertainment and activity roster as suits you.
PORTS OF CALL:
Our cruise had only 3 ports of call, which suited us fine as we enjoy at sea days and this vacation was mostly for R&R after a tough summer.
SINT MAARTEN / SAINT MARTIN: This wasn't our first time to St. Maarten nor will it be our last as this must be one of the easiest ports to find something interesting to do. In fact, we have yet to actually spend a day on land other than shopping after an excursion out on the water. This time around we participated in the America's Cup sailboat racing regatta, joining Captain Ernie from South Africa on Canada II. We didn't have the best wind (would have loved going really fast! maybe next time ...) but we all still had a great time and I recommend the excursion.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: We did not book an excursion here figuring the city was compact enough that we could set out and sightsee on our own. It was scorching hot and humid the day we were there, which came as a bit of a surprise as I have spent plenty of time in the Caribbean in the summer, including working for a whole summer in Jamaica several years ago, and usually the temps are pleasant near the coast with balmy breezes. Not so in San Juan, and curiously a friend who visited San Juan on a cruise in August 2009 had the same experience. We did hike on out to El Morro, but it was really too hot to enjoy the outing. I suspect San Juan might be more fun visiting in any other season besides summer?
LABADEE, HAITI: I was looking forward to our visit to Haiti, especially in view of the assistance I know Royal Caribbean has offered to help after the devastating earthquake there. The actual experience didn't measure up to my expectations, however. Now in fairness, we probably would have enjoyed it lots more had we ridden the Dragon's Tail Coaster or flown down the zipline, but one of our daughters was recovering from a traumatic brain injury sustained in an accident over Memorial Day and was therefore forbidden to participate in these activities, so we were limited to a "regular" beach day. Still, I had high expectations because we have been to Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean's other private island, and we loved it! We expected to hang out at the beach, and go swimming and snorkeling (we brought our own gear). We discovered that where we were anyway (a designated beach spot with chaise longues suggesting a good place for swimming), the water at Labadee very quickly graduated from sand to gooey muck with seaweed ... yuck! So it wasn't at all pleasant wading out past knee deep. Our daughters tried a different point of entry, and there it was all sharp rocks underfoot so they got out before one of them got hurt. I gathered after talking to a fellow who went snorkeling that it was okay if you swam way far out ... but you had to get past the nasty shallows first. Now I understand why they offer a snorkeling shore excursion by BOAT instead of renting snorkel gear to set out from the beach.
In contrast, at Coco Cay the water was inviting, clear with a mostly sandy bottom and we snorkeled about and even saw some lobsters seeking refuge under a rock from the tourists. For the record, the other private island we have visited was Great Stirrup Cay (NCL). Great Stirrup Cay is not as beautiful as either Coco Cay or Labadee, both of which are lovely in appearance with very nice beaches (Great Stirrup Cay has a pretty narrow beach area by comparison), and the water at Great Stirrup Cay has a mostly rocky entry, but the snorkeling is excellent with lots of fish and even sea turtles close in. Also, because it is situated immediately adjacent to where the tenders dock, the beach volleyball tends to be a going concern on Great Stirrup Cay. I don't recall beach volleyball on Coco Cay (???), and while there were nets up at Labadee, they were way off at the far end of the beach and nobody seemed to go down that far, much less strike up a match. On the bright side, the beach barbecue picnic at Labadee was tasty! Next time we come here we will consider booking an excursion.
Please feel free to contact me directly (JBFLeBlanc@aol.com) if you have any questions about Liberty of the Seas, or about cruising in general.